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Garth Brooks deserves his spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame for history he's made, but his contemporary influence still looms large

Size Matters

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By Garth Brooks' 1990s standards, the Country Music Hall of Fame's stately Ford Theater is a Lilliputian venue — not to mention one that's unsuitable for rocketing up through the floor in a secret elevator, Tarzan-swinging out over the crowd or putting on pyrotechnic displays of any kind.

It was there, during a private ceremony on the third Sunday in October, that Brooks was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame along with the other two members of the class of 2012: Connie Smith, standard bearer for soul-deep country singing, and Pig Robbins, the important, once ubiquitous session pianist.

No inductee in recent memory has been simultaneously as popular and as polarizing as Brooks. The mammoth scale of his stadium shows, the enormous number of records he's sold worldwide — we're talking nine figures — and the insatiable ambition behind it all are reasons why he was such a shoot-in for the hall the moment he reached eligibility. Then again, they're also why his name is so frequently invoked in complaints about contemporary country's excesses.

The world of modern country music had never seen the likes of Brooks. And once the stakes were raised by his creative/commercial success — there's really no use trying to separate the two things where he's concerned — virtually any other career was bound to look a bit anticlimactic by comparison.

In his 1998 analysis of the industry, Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes and the Changing Face of Nashville, Bruce Feiler writes, "While the short-term impact of this influx of energy and excitement was beneficial for everyone: greater sales, more media exposure and higher numbers all around ... the long-term impact proved devastating: higher expectations, more fickle audiences and greater financial pressures for all."

The triumphant mass-media, mass-audience spectacle that was Brooks' 1997 Central Park concert prompted former Scene contributor Bruce Dobie to deadpan, "Garth is big. America loves big. America buys Garth."

Much was made of the idea that Brooks had conquered New York, a place popularly characterized as being beyond country's reach. (The CMA Awards hadn't yet taken its own 2005 field trip to Madison Square Garden.) In the first place, when Brooks made the transition from opener to headliner, he'd imported a super-sized arena-rock template that could go over anywhere.

"I got guys smashing guitars, I got guys doing leads while running across the stage," Brooks boasted to Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis in '93. "The '70s-arena-rock thing, that's what I remember most. When I went to see Kansas and Queen and Styx, I don't even remember the music. But I know what I saw."

There's no turning back the clock to the days before Brooks proved just how popular a sensory-overload country show could be, and no denying the fact that he set his fans ablaze when he exerted himself like an Olympic sprinter onstage — wearing his skintight Wranglers, colorblock Western shirts, black Stetson and headset microphone. To this day, it's not enough for a fine honky-tonk crooner like Chris Young to just stand at a mic and deliver a ballad. The show would seem lacking in its showmanship if he didn't bound around and punch the air to get the crowd riled up — or at least that's the fear. It would be unfair to blame Brooks each time arena-rocking turns out not to be some current act's strongest suit. As a true believer in himself and an earnest, energetically expressive entertainer who'd do anything to make sure his fans came away feeling like they'd experienced something they wouldn't soon forget, he had the outsized personality to carry the show.

Brooks has famously admitted he's a better entertainer than he is a singer, and if you start back at his self-titled 1989 debut and listen up through 2001's Scarecrow — the last album he made before semi-retiring to Vegas shows and that memorable string of Bridgestone-filling flood benefits — you'll find that he's telling the truth. His voice itself isn't notably rich or robust. But has any country singer ever made hamming it up sound more contagiously fun than he did during his original recorded version of the self-deprecating honky-tonk classic "Friends in Low Places"?

What often gets lost in the shadow of Brooks' persona is the well-roundedness of his recorded artistry. In a pre-Hall of Fame induction feature in The Wall Street Journal, Barry Mazor writes, "He fought for the power to make records and tour with the musicians and production team he wanted — the sorts of efforts lionized when made by 'Outlaws' Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson."

In The Garth Factor: The Career Behind Country's Big Boom, Patsi Bale Cox credits Brooks with favoring authenticity in the studio, with a business-savvy drive to get his music to the broadest possible audience — which, she argues, actually makes him more, not less, like Hank Sr. — and with drastically expanding the types of songs and the scope of subject matter that belongs in a country act's repertoire.

Song-wise, Brooks built his albums from sensitive introspection, dramatic storytelling, cowboy and rodeo balladry, humanistic life-coaching, sprawling statement-making and lighthearted, red-blooded party-starting. It's a variety that was reflected in the three early influences chosen to perform during Brooks' portion of the ceremony: George Strait, James Taylor and Bob Seger.

There's a ton of name-checking in country lyrics, the intention usually being to link the singer of the song with the cultural capital of the legend being invoked. As often as not, Hank, Willie and Waylon have been the ones referenced, with Johnny Cash and George Jones tied at a close second. But like in many other areas of pop culture, the '80s and '90s have become fair game. Alabama, Keith Whitley, Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Joe Diffie, even outside influences like Bruce Springsteen and James Taylor, have popped up in songs by Brad Paisley, Lee Ann Womack, Eden's Edge, Brantley Gilbert, Jason Aldean, Eric Church and Taylor Swift, respectively.

But nobody's put Brooks in a song yet. Could be because he's a very hard act to follow.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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